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Robert Heilbroner, 85; with novelist's touch, he enlivened economics texts

LOS ANGELES -- Robert Heilbroner, an educator and prolific writer who enlivened the subject of economics with his classic study of the world's most influential economic thinkers, died Jan. 5 of a stroke in New York City. He was 85.

Dr. Heilbroner had suffered from Lewy body disease, which causes dementia similar to Alzheimer's disease.

''The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers," first published in 1953, became Dr. Heilbroner's most prominent work. The best-selling book was translated into 20 languages, sold more than 4 million copies, and has ranked for years second in usage in college and university economics courses only to Paul Samuelson's ''Economics."

''I've conned millions of young people into thinking that economics is an interesting subject in tune with their social concerns," he once said.

Students were far from his only readers.

The book, which went into its seventh printing in 1999, describes the contributions of such luminaries as Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes to the history of economic thinking. But it further provides a historic perspective missing in stodgier economics texts, using personal anecdotes to link the men to their social and political time and to one another.

A New Republic reviewer greeted the work more than half a century ago as ''the finest book for an economic semiliterate . . . that has been produced in this country for years."

Noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith called it ''a brilliant achievement" and said Dr. Heilbroner had handled his subject ''nearly to perfection."

Dr. Heilbroner added a cautionary new final chapter to the 1999 edition, titled cryptically ''The End of Worldly Philosophy." He utilized the chapter to detail his dislike for the modern trend in economics that relies on mathematics and esoteric models while excluding societal factors.

''Economics will not, and should not, become a political torch that lights our way into the future," he wrote, ''but it can and should become the source of an awareness of ways by which a capitalist structure can broaden its motivations, increase its flexibility, and develop its social morale."

Describing himself as a ''philosophical historian" or an intellectual, rather than an economist, Dr. Heilbroner wrote or co-wrote more than 20 books and numerous essays and in 1972 became the first Norman Thomas (named for the late Socialist Party presidential candidate) professor of economics at the New School of Social Research in New York.

His seminal book (which a New School adviser observed could have served as the dissertation for the doctorate Dr. Heilbroner obtained there a decade after ''Worldly Philosophers" was published) became the springboard for nearly everything he wrote over the next half century. In his essays and books, he repeatedly mulled over where the world currently stood in the stream of socioeconomic history, what it was like at the moment, and where was it headed.

Adept at readably describing economic theories and relating them to current social and political problems including overpopulation and war, Dr. Heilbroner churned out such titles as: ''The Quest for Wealth," ''This Growing World: Economic Development and the World Bank," ''The Future as History," ''The Making of Economic Society," ''A Primer on Government Spending," ''The Limits of American Capitalism," ''Is Economics Relevant?," ''Business Civilization in Decline," ''Marxism: For and Against," ''The Debt and the Deficit: False Alarms/Real Possibilities" (with Peter Bernstein), ''Twenty-First Century Capitalism," and ''Teachings from the Worldly Philosophy."

Dr. Heilbroner, with a novelist's touch, earned particular praise for luring the reluctant into learned books with great opening lines. In his 1995 ''Visions of the Future: The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," for example, he began: ''This is an exceedingly long, short book stretching from archeological beginnings 150,000 years in the past to who knows how many millennia into the future."

Born in New York City to a wealthy clothing-merchant family, the economist ironically told a New York Post interviewer in 1972: ''I was reared during the Great Depression and never knew there was one."

He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University in 1940 with a bachelor's degree in history, government, and economics, and received a doctorate from New School of Social Research in 1963. Drafted into the Army during World War II, he served as an intelligence officer, interrogating Japanese prisoners of war in the Pacific, and was awarded a Bronze Star.

Dr. Heilbroner leaves his wife, Shirley, and two sons from a previous marriage, Peter and David.

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